Writings by Cole Huffman


Beyond the Shadow of a Devotional Doubt

In a recent sermon on Matthew 13:31-33—two word pictures Jesus directed at doubters of Himself and His kingdom—I quoted two authors on doubting. Many asked for copies of the quotes. I take it we all know and love a doubter or two. Here are both quotes in full with commentary in between:

“Because the broader culture treats doubt as the apex of our intellectual experience, there are cultural incentives for those who embrace it. For young, culturally cosmopolitan evangelical Christians, the cultural rewards are all on the side of tossing out the truths we’ve inherited and starting again from the beginning. Trafficking in doubt draws a crowd, as anxious uncertainty strikes us as more authentic and courageous than firm conviction. It is bold to ask our questions, we think, and cowardly to retreat to the creed.”

So writes Matthew Lee Anderson in his book The End of Our Exploring (p. 49), a book that seeks to establish a perimeter for “questioning well.” Questions scrutinize, of course, but it’s Anderson’s contention that the forms our questions take are also open to scrutiny. We grant philosophical benefit of the doubt to the doubter’s questions. He is “just being honest,” we say. But questions are not always neutral. License to doubt may holster deep hostilities toward God, like a concealed carry permit one uses to fire away whenever, and our capacity for self-deception is hair-trigger.

“You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or ‘psychological’ explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful—more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms—but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.” (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, pp. 75-76)

Like mustard seed. I recognize what this looks like—the way I’ve come, Jesus says via similitudes in Matthew 13:31-33: Not with infantry, but carpentry. The Romans remain in power and will crucify me. And so you want to dismiss me as irrelevant to your messianic expectations. But you should no more do that than you would deny the mustard seed its produce or leavened bread its rise. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Is Wiman’s “devotional doubt” paragraph above not the epitome of the fitly spoken word of Proverbs 25:11—“like apples of gold in settings of silver”? I don’t know that I’ll ever read anything better on doubt. (He is the editor of Poetry magazine.) Many of us have handled friends’ and family members’ faith doubts with a Come at me, bro! aplomb. We’re klutzily argumentative or woodenly defensive because we’re afraid for them, and ourselves. And yet devotional doubt is entirely biblical, is it not? Isn’t it John the Baptist’s doubt in Matthew 11:2-6 and the disciples’ doubt in Matthew 28:16-17?

Jesus confronts doubt but doesn’t run roughshod over it, doesn’t mow it down. He tells the doubter a story, a dinner parable. He appeals to what you know—you know seeds grow and enzymes leaven—to build to faith. Faith is the assurance of what is hoped for, the conviction of what is not seen, and by it people receive their commendation from God. There is room for devotional doubt in Jesus’ kingdom because it is distinguished by what it eventually yields: durable faith.

Doubt tends to proliferate in what the famed Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968) called Sensate cultural modes. Material values predominate in the Sensate because what is “truly real” values the sensory over the spiritual (Ideational). And so it is bold to ask questions and cowardly to retreat to creeds when the Sensate moment is absolute. Cue the well-worn Lewis: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us….”

If you interact with doubters, if you love a doubter, look beyond the shadows of doubt to shafts of light never dimmed. Christ is there as He’s always been. And as Chaucer put it, we’re all endeavoring to own God’s ownership of us in Christ. God wastes nothing in having His way, including doubts. Devotional doubt, as Wiman describes it in his humility-insufficiency-mystery triad, may be in the end notary public that Christ was being formed in us all along.
Posted by Cole Huffman at 7:50 PM
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